by Kerry Esterhuizen

Marching to their own beat

Brass band keeps kids away from gang life

Bezzi's youth brass band in Blood River, Limpopo, helps keep kids off the streets.
Bezzi's youth brass band

Every Friday morning 17-year-old Sarel Ramphele puts on his gold-trimmed suit, grabs his trumpet and walks the six kilometres from his home in Blood River to the neighbouring village.

Under a makeshift iron roof in the yard of an unused house he meets with scores of other young people to rehearse for what has become an improbable musical success story in one of South Africa's poorest regions.

Based in Limpopo, a rural region whose lifeblood is its eponymous river, Bezzi's youth brass band is one local woman's answer to a distinct lack of youth engagement in the area.

"There are absolutely no entertainment facilities for young people around here," says Janet Bezuidenhout, 42, who set up the band just under three years ago. "The teenagers are just idling around."

Ramphele joined the band when he was just 14 and last year was appointed lead trumpet player. He relishes having something to work towards. "I used to spend a lot of time on the streets doing nothing. The band keeps my mind fresh and helps me develop," he says.

It was Bezuidenhout's music-loving nephew Rondo who inspired her to start the group. He was looking to join a local band but there was no such thing. As a former drum majorette at school, she shared his passion and decided to buy 10 instruments with her pension fund so he could set up his own group.

When Rondo called the first meeting at his late grandfather's empty house in Makgofe village, he would have been delighted to see even one person turn up. But young people in the neighbouring towns had caught wind of the new band and that morning there was a group of 30 boys and girls crowding around the yard.

Moved by the youngsters' new-found zest, Bezuidenhout was reluctant to send anyone home. "I heard them playing and it touched me. It touched me so much to see these kids so excited."

Aware of the potential of her project but unable to finance it she applied for a government tender scheme that allows small businesses or individuals to bid for one-off jobs with public bodies, such as cleaning or construction contracts. Bezuidenhout, a retired administrator, won her bid and spent a month installing cabinets in a nearby hospital for a lump sum of R20,000.

With that money, Bezuidenhout upped her inventory of instruments and bought suits, skirts and blouses for the band. She modifies the uniforms at home with gold thread trimmings and a badge with the group's name. Today, the band has 60 trained members who share 16 trombones, six side drums, four tubas and a bass drum.

Training is run by four 'band leaders' who are slightly older and able to show the younger members how to play. One of them is 26-year-old Nokie Nthoke who got involved so that he could "get off the streets and stay out of trouble".

Limpopo is plagued by high crime rates and unemployment. "After 7 or 8 o'clock at night it is difficult to walk around," says Bezuidenhout. "Men lurking on the streets will stab you and take everything in your possession."

With little opportunity for development, Bezuidenhout says it's not unusual for boys as young as 13 to join gangs in the area. But in recent years, a handful have gone from gang member to band member and mellowed under Bezuidenhout's no-nonsense guidance.

If a member misbehaves, even outside the confines of rehearsals, a meeting will be called and Bezuidenhout and a handful of members will quiz the culprit on their actions and agree on an appropriate punishment. "There is a lot of respect between comrades," she says.

Both Ramphele and Nthoke speak of the importance of their band's community and count their large pool of friends as one of the best things about being a member.

But the popularity of the band is becoming a problem – Bezuidenhout has a waiting list of 30 under 15-year-olds who at the moment cannot be catered for. Ultimately, she would like 100 in her troop but without donations the future of Bezzi's youth is uncertain.

"Some of the instruments are broken, the uniforms are getting old and affording transport, even to local events, is a problem," she says.

The band and its unique take on gospel songs have become a favourite for local events such as weddings and the unveiling of tombstones, but paying for the bus trip to the performance is not always possible.

"It's very painful for me" says Bezuidenhout. "I cannot tell them that it has to stop because we have no money. Even when there's no rehearsal they'll be there. I'll send 60 messages telling them not to come because it is pouring with rain, but some of them will still turn up." Many of the band members walk from villages as far as 12 kilometres away just to practice.

Despite financial barriers Bezuidenhout remains a source of hope for her young musicians, who share her dream of playing beyond Limpopo.

She says: "I want us to march the main street in Cape Town at Christmas or Easter time when thousands of people line the streets to watch the parades."

A musical success story
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